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Mama Grievance

Last week, I was sharply critical of the way Sarah Palin handled accusations that she was in some way to blame for the Tucson shooting. It is easy to understand why Palin might be defensive.  As divisive and nasty as her rhetoric can be, she did not deserve the suggestion that she was to blame in any way for the attempted assassination of a Congresswoman and the shooting of 19 other people. But her response—to suggest that she herself was victim of the same kind of false accusation that was used to justify the historical persecution and slaughter of the Jews—was particularly noxious with six people lying dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in intensive care after taking a bullet to her brain.

As many commentators said, Palin’s response highlighted the difference between her and President Obama, especially in the wake of his widely-admired speech at the memorial service in for victims of the shooting. And it shows why Palin is unlikely to beat Obama if she runs against him in 2012.

It’s not simply that Palin failed to anticipate how people would respond to her use of the term “blood libel”—originally the term for the  slander that Jews used the blood of Christian children in making their matzoh that was used to justify the pogroms—to describe the criticism of her. Nor is it that, as Lindsay Beyerstein pointed out, Palin has herself leveled an absurd, over-the-top charges against Democrats when she accused them of plotting to set up “death panels” that would decide who would live and die—a claim that the Pulitzer-Prize-winning factcheck site Politifact named its “Lie of the Year” for 2010. Nor is it even her incoherent, self-serving claim that the criticism of her did precisely the thing—incite violence—she denied criticism could ever do.

Rather it is that, as Jonathan Martin says, Palin’s response shows she isn’t either interested in or able to ”move beyond her brand of grievance-based politics.” Palin never misses an opportunity to go on the offensive. She never seems to acknowledges even the possibility that she might be at fault. Instead she always doubles down and plays the victim of unfair attacks by establishment politicians and the mainstream media—even when it is ridiculous or in poor taste to do so.

This aggressive unwillingness to compromise or admit fault is a large part of why her supporters adore her so much, and it is always good for keeping her in the headlines. But it is also a large part of why she is so unpopular with moderates and independents. Winning a national election requires knowing when to be conciliatory, as well as when it isn’t appropriate to become the story—skills Obama has, but Palin has so far not shown.

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